The Silver Branch
First edition cover






Young adult


Charles Keeping

Historical era



The Dolphin Ring

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The Silver Branch is a young adult novel first published in 1957, illustrated by Charles Keeping. It follows a surgeon and an officer who discover a plot to overthrow the emperor Carausius and join an underground resistance after his assassination.

It is the second novel about the Flavius Aquila family chronologically and the third in publication order.


Justin, a young Roman Army surgeon who has just finished his apprenticeship, is assigned to the Second Legion in Britannia, a province whose breakaway native emperor Carausius has only just been brought back into the imperial fold by the western emperors Maximian and Constantius. On arriving at the Saxon Shore fort of Rutupiae, he encounters Flavius, a junior centurion, and they quickly discover that they are distant cousins. Justin is introduced to Carausius and to his Finance Minister Allectus, to whom he takes a dislike (1). Justin and Flavius see Allectus in the shop of Serapion, a perfume seller, whose insinuations that Allectus favours more lenient taxes than Carausius Allectus does not deny.

Flavius takes Justin to visit their family farm on the South Downs, where he shares his theory that the grant of land from the Senate generations ago had something to do with the vanished Ninth Legion and an unexplained adventure in Caledonia (2). On the road back to Rutupiae, they meet Carausius, who brings them to his house, where they meet his Fool, Cullen, an eccentric slave who calls himself Carausius's hound and carries a curious musical instrument called a Silver Branch (3).

In spring, while hunting in the marshes, they see a Saxon messenger meet with Allectus (4). They capture the Saxon and rush to denounce Allectus to Carausius, but the prisoner is found poisoned and without further evidence, Carausius banishes them to service on the Wall (5). They are both reassigned to the fort of Magnis, where Flavius endears himself to one of his men, Manlius, by saving him from a breaking catapult and Justin befriends an injured Dalriad hunter named Evicatos of the Spear (6). Evicatos repays Justin's doctoring by warning him of Allectus's conspiracies with the Picts, and offers to carry a message to Carausius, but they are detected by Posides, Flavius's malcontented second-in-command (7). Manlius warns them of their betrayal and smuggles them out of Magnis with Evicatos, but they learn on their way south that Carausius has been assassinated and Allectus is now emperor of Britain (8).

Justin and Flavian resolve to cross to Gaul to rejoin the army under Constantius. They stop in Calleva to take leave of their great aunt, Honoria, then seek passage from Portus Adurni, where they are picked up by Paulinus, the leader of a resistance ring (9). Paulinus asks them to stay as his operatives, but they refuse, before changing their minds at the last minute (10). In spring, during a visit from Allectus, they recruit a centurion named Anthonius, who is followed by Serapion back to Paulinus's house (11). While the others escape across the roofs, Paulinus allows himself to be cut down by Allectus's Saxon Guard. The remaining agents under Justin and Flavius relocate their headquarters to the farm on the South Downs (12).

Justin and Flavius gradually recruit resistance fighters in anticipation of an invasion by Constantius, and in Calleva they discover Cullen with a message for them from Carausius, being chased by Saxons (13). Hiding him in Great Aunt Honoria's hypocaust, they uncover the battered remains of the eagle standard of the Ninth Legion. Returning to their own "legion" with their new emblem, they find Evicatos newly joined and Constantius's fleet offshore (14). The Lost Legion marches into the camp of Asklepiodotus of the western force as volunteers and are vouched for by Justin's old commanding officer (15).

Asklepiodotus defeats Allectus's mercenaries just outside Calleva, and the retreating Saxons move to sack the town (16). The Lost Legion ride in to defend the basilica, where most of the townspeople have taken refuge. The Saxons attack the basilica, and Evicatos is killed defending Cullen, but the Saxons are driven off, not before the entire town is on fire. The eagle of the Ninth is lost in the burning basilica (17).

In Londinium, Allectus and Serapion are executed by Constantius. Britain is folded back into the western empire, to be fortified against the Saxons. The Lost Legion is disbanded, but Justin and Flavius choose to rejoin the army under Constantius. Cullen informs them that, by Carausius's instruction, he is now their hound (18).


The Carausian Revolt lasted from 286 to 296 CE. Allectus overthrew Carausius in 293 and was defeated by Constantius's forces in 296. The Silver Branch agrees with the dates of Carausius's reign but shortens Allectus's to 295.

  • 286: Seven years before Carausius's death: defeated Bassanius and became emperor of Britain
  • 292, spring: Three months before ch.1: Justin posted to Britain from Judea
  • 292, Autumn: ch 1, Justin arrives at Rutupiae
  • 292, Autumn-winter: ch.2.
  • 292, Just after Saturnalia (late December): ch.2, five days on the farm, ch.3
  • 293, March: ch.4-6? Rutupiae and Magnis
  • 293, Autumn: ch. 7
  • 293, Samhain (Hallowe'en): ch.8. Carausius killed six nights earlier.
  • 293, Winter: ch.9, Calleva and Portus Adurni; ch.10, five days in the ruined theatre
  • 294, Winter, spring, summer-July: ch.11, 12
  • 294-5, Summer, autumn, winter, spring: ch.13
  • 295, June: ch.13-17
  • 295, July: ch. 18


  • Tiberius Lucius Justinianus, junior surgeon; a very ugly young man of sickly constitution; shy, stuttering; claustrophobic (ch.10)
  • Fulvius Licinius, commander of the 3rd Cohort of the Fretencis at Beersheba; knew Justin's father; knew Carausius at Scaldis; later Primus Pilus to Asklepiodotus in Britain. Lean and brown.
  • Maximian, emperor
  • Constantius, called Chlorus ("the Green"), son of Maximian;  in Gaul defending the German frontier; "despite his whey face he's the best soldier in this tired old Empire" (ch.9)
  • Marcus Aurelius Carausius (Curoi), "the little emperor" of Britain; a Romano-Hibernian from Laighin; once a Scaldis river-pilot; named himself emperor in the North in 286; was accomodated by Maximian. Killed by Allectus in October 293.
  • Diocletian, emperor;
  • Marcelus Flavius Aquila, centurion; "a stocky, red-haired young man with a thin, merry face and fly-away eyebrows, who seemed friendly." Raised at Calleva by Great Aunt Honoria after his parents' death from pestilence.
  • Vinicius, senior surgeon at Rutupiae; short-tempered
  • Great Aunt Honoria. "A thin old woman with a proud beak of a nose and very bright eyes, brown and wrinkled as a walnut and painted like a dancing-girl – save that no dancing-girl ever put the paint on so badly." Survives the basilica of Calleva and moves to Aqua Sulis after her house burns down.
  • Justin's mother, a beautiful woman whom he resembles
  • Justin's father, an officer whom he believes he disappoints
  • Allectus, finance minister. Captured at Calleva and executed at Londinium.
  • Arcadius, captain of the Caleope, a three-bank galley. A sword-cut on the cheek from the arena.
  • Dexion, centurion of marines. Melancholy; wins at dice.
  • Serapion, shopkeeper. Half-British, half-Egyptian; sells nightshade to Allectus and tracks Anthonius to Paulinus. Executed with Allectus.
  • Servius, steward of the Flavius farm. An optio under Flavius's father.
  • Cutha, Servius's wife
  • Kyndylan, their son; "with his broad pleasant face half lost in a fuzz of golden beard"; joins the Lost Legion and injures his arm on the Londinium road. Survives Calleva.
  • Free men and women, their farm-hands
  • Buic, the old shepherd; possessor of a wall-eyed sheep-dog; speaks British; knew Flavius's grandfather
  • Nestor, Carausius's horse; a roan stallion
  • Goban, a smith
  • The decurion of Carausius's escort
  • Cullen, Curoi/Carausius's slave. A fool, called his hound; carries a musical instrument called a Silver Branch; wears a dog's tail as part of his motley. From Laighin, owned by Carausius for seven years. Held prisoner after Carausius's death; carried at letter to Flavius and Justin whom he found at Calleva after two years. Became the standard-bearer of the Lost Legion; survived Calleva; was instructed by Curoi to follow Justin and Flavius after his death.
  • A Saxon, Allectus's contact. Speaks some Latin. Held in number five cell; killed by nightshade in his dinner broth.
  • The Sea Witch, ship of the Saxon messenger
  • Mutius Urbanus, commandant of Rutupiae; "a thin, stooping man with a long, grey face a little like a tired old horse's; but his eyes were shrewdly alert"
  • Vipsanius, a tribune; sent to fetch the Saxon
  • Posides, senior centurion of the 8th Cohort of the 2nd Augustan. "A big man with a little, crumpled, bitter face." Betrays Justin and Evicatos.
  • The Picts (the Painted People), tribe beyond the wall
  • Manlius, "one of the hardest cases in all Magnis". Leg broken by no.3 catapult, rescued by Flavius and Justin. Has a woman who lives in the street of the Golden Grasshopper. Warns Justin about his arrest.
  • Evicatos of the Spear, an exiled Dalriad. "a man much taller than was usual with [Picts], with a mane of hair as thick and proudly tawny as a lion's, and eyes in his head like a pretty girl's." Wears warrior tattoos and a wolfskin loincloth. Bitten in the shoulder by a wolf. Exile at 16 for murder; living among the Picts for 15 years. Fought for Carausius 7 years since. Joined the Lost Legion; killed in the basilica defending Cullen.
  • Quintus Bassanius, former governor of Britain; killed by Carausius 7 years since
  • Sylvanus Varus, standard-bearer of the 5th Tungrian Cohort, 2nd Augustan. Raised an altar "To the Fates, that they may be kind" in Valentia, perhaps 150 years before Justin's time
  • Sextus, optio of the 8th; owner of a red and black fighting cock
  • Manlius's wife; hides Evicatos and supplies Justin and Flavius in their escape
  • Cuscrid, a smith in Magnis, with whom Evicatos left his hounds
  • Volumnia, Honoria's servant. "An immmensely fat woman with a saffron-coloured mantle drawn forward over her grey hair". "Where Volumnia is, there Aunt Honoria is also."
  • Justin's mother's nurse, "the best thing in my childhood, but she's d-dead now."
  • Flavia, Justin's grandmother. Possessor of a cosmetic box with the Flavius dolphin crest.
  • Justin's grandfather; "an extremely plain man" whom Honoria never liked. Probably the grandfather who settled in Nicaea.
  • Phaedrus of the Berenice;  "little slim sea-captain with a blue faience drop in one ear"; agent of Paulinus who first spots Flavius and Justin; warns Paulinus of the government raid
  • A Marine; talked sedition in the Dolphin and evacuated to Gaul on the Berenice by Paulinus
  • Paulinus, a tax-gatherer; the resistance leader of Portus Adurni; a small paunchy man; former under-secretary to Carausius, early in his reign. Fan of Euripides. Killed by the Saxons when his house is compromised.
  • Crispinius, Flavius's fictional bald kinsman in the Portus Adurni wine trade
  • Ulpius, barkeep of the Dolphin; agent of Paulinus
  • Myron, free servant of Paulinus; "a boy with a sharply eager face and two front teeth missing, who introduced himself as 'Myron that saw to everything',"; recruited by Paulinus when trying to steal his purse. Goes to the farm with Flavius and Justin; attaches himself to Anthonius, from whom he is "seldom willingly apart"; survives Calleva
  • Cerdic the boat-builder; agent of Paulinus with whom Justin and Flavius lodge
  • A government clerk of the Corn Office at Regnum; agent of Paulinus
  • An old woman who sold flowers outside the temple of Mars Toutate at Clausentium; agent of Paulinus
  • Saxon and Frankish mercenaries, hired by Allectus in June
  • Anthonius, centurion at Portus Adurni; "a dark, raw-boned lad with a jutting galley-prow of a nose, and a wide, uncompromising mouth", "a pockmarked forehead", "rough, dark hair" (ch.15); asks Justin for evacuation, is followed by Serapion; joins the resistance after Paulinus's death. A Christian. Survives Calleva.
  • Flann, the ploughman on the Flavius farm
  • The Lost Legion, assorted malcontents; take the rediscovered Eagle of the Ninth for their standard; defend the basilica of Calleva; disbanded at Londinium.
  • Pandarus, a freed gladiator; "a gaunt and tattered creature"; discovered by Justin at Venta; thrill seeker; wears a rose; killed in the basilica.
  • Tuan; shoesmith of the Flavius farm; old
  • Askepiodotus, Praetorian prefect to Constantius; "a large pink and gold man", "a very large man, tall and stooping and beginning to be fat, with an air of gentle sloth about him which they learned later was deceptive." Does not understand seasickness.
  • The Thirtieth Ulpia Victrix, "a Lower Rhenus Legion that had come under Carausius's influence at one time"; had a rough channel crossing.
  • Vexhilation of the Parthica, "A Gaulish legion that had followed the little Emperor in the early days"; with a centaur badge
  • Legate of the Ulpia Victrix, "still faintly green"
  • Allectus's defence force, >12,000 mercenaries and marines, 6-7 cohorts. Defeated by Asklepiodotus's Western Force at Calleva and Constantius's Eastern Force at Londinium.
  • 1800 Callevans, free and slave, in the basilica: "a stout wine-shop woman; a slave from the dyeworks"
  • A tall man who knows Flavius, survives the siege and organises the bucket chain
  • Balbus, chief physician of Calleva, panicked in the basilica
  • A fair girl "like a white flower, who looked like she had never seen blood before", who assists Justin with an injured Otter's Ford farmer
  • Conal of the Victories, Irish legend compared to blood-soaked Evicatos
  • 7th Claudian Legion, part of Constantius's Londinium procession


  • Rutupiae, harbour and Roman fort on the Saxon Shore; Carausius's headquarters.
    • Tanatis, island opposite Rutupiae, marsh hunting ground
    • Abandoned fishing village at the southernmost point of the Rutupiae mainland, where Allectus meets the Saxon
  • Beersheba, Judea, a single cohort fort; where Justin spent his year as Surgeon's Cub
  • Nicaea, southern Gaul, where Justin's British grandfather retired
  • Metaris, fort similar to Rutupiae
  • Calleva, home of Honoria and Flavius; overrun by Saxons fleeing Asklepiodotus. Basilica and most of the town burned down, including Honoria's house.
    • The temple of Sul Minerva, in whose gardens the Lost Legion leave their horses
    • The Forum and basilica, where the citizens shelter form the Saxons, defended by the Lost Legion, burned by the Saxons
    • The Silver Garland, a wine-shop raided by the Saxons
  • Flavius farm on the south Downs; 10-12 miles from Portus Adurni; becomes the HQ of Flavius and Justin's spy ring
  • Aqua Sulis, where Honoria goes in midwinter
  • Venta, near Calleva
  • Limanis, where they change horses en route to Rutupiae, site of a lighthouse
  • The forest of Anderida, skirted by the road
    • A smithy a couple of miles beyond Limanis and 15 from Rutupiae, where they meet Carausius
    • Carausius's house, 5 miles from the smithy, on a cliff edge above the sea
  • Tara, seat of the high king of Erin
  • Laighin, home of Carausius and Cullen, three days south of Tara
  • Dubris, site of a lighthouse
  • Gesoriacum, lighthouse southeast of Carausius's house, out of his control since the previous winter
  • Magnis, a wall fort. HQ of the 8th Cohort of the 2nd Augustan Legion.
    • The Vallum; former frontier ditch behind the wall and highway; now the site of Magnis's lower town
    • The street of the Golden Grasshopper; named for the wine-shop at the corner; the alley where Manlius's wife lives and hides Evicatos
  • Luguvalium, fort southwest of Magnis, and the Great Sands, between which Carausius landed and defeated Bassanius among the western mountains
  • The altar of the Fates; raised in Valentia 100-200 years ago by a soldier of the 2nd, where Evicatos tells of Allectus's plotting with the Picts
  • Albu, beyond the wall; former province of Valentia
  • Vindobala, Aesica, Chilurnium; lower towns along the wall
  • The Red Burn, a river with a pool and three standing stones where Evicatos meets Justin and Flavius
  • A farm south of the wall, where they spend Samhain
  • The Spinaii forest, outside Calleva
  • Portus Adurni, fort town on the Portus Magnus; where Justin and Flavius seek transport to Gaul; Paulinus's HQ
    • The Dolphin, wine-shop in Adurni
    • The tax-gatherer's house, on a blind alley in Adurni, with a courtyard with a well and "the best little apple tree in the Empire"
    • The ruined theatre; connected to his house; a bolt-hole; also occupied by squatters' bothies
    • The Temple of Jupiter in Portus Adurni, where Allectus addresses the crowd and Anthonius confronts the Barbarian Guard
    • The Sparrow's Way, rooftop escape rout from Paulinus's house, used during the raid
  • Clausentium, in Paulinus's sphere of operations
  • Londinium, Allectus's seat of government; site of his defeat and Constantius's marching-camp
    • Constantius's marching camp, outside Londinium's walls
  • Vectis (Isle of Wight); island in sight of which they camp en route to the farm; sight of a lighthouse; naval station with a fleet
  • Otter's Ford, farm burned by mercenaries; three brothers join the Lost Legion
  • Asklepiodotus's camp, on the shore west of Flavius's farm; two miles west of the Regnum road to Londinium; also near the Venta and Calleva road
  • Regnum road: a day's march over the Chalk and into the forest of Anderida, then out onto the North Chalk a day from Londinium (= "ancient track from Durovernum under the scarp of the North Chalk"?)
  • Venta and Calleva road: forty miles of wooded downland to Calleva from the coast, then open forest and cornland of the Thamesis valley
  • Durovernum-Calleva crossroad, in a "shallow downland pass" 15 miles from Venta. Site of Allectus's camp; Asklepiodotus's 3rd night's camp a couple of miles away, 6 miles from the Calleva road. Thorn trees positioned across the mouth of the pass by Asklep.


"Nobody sneezed in the family for two hundred years that our Aunt Honoria doesn't remember all about it." – Flavius

Justin, Flavius, and Great Aunt Honoria are descendants of Marcus Flavius Aquila from The Eagle of the Ninth, but their exact relationships are not precisely explained. Marcus's wife Cottia is not mentioned by name, but Flavius's red hair nods to her.

Justin is said to be the grandson of a British-born soldier who retired in Nicaea; and of Flavia, of the South Downs family, who married an ugly man disliked by Honoria. The simplest arrangement of the stated facts is that they were married to each other and were the parents of Justin's father, and that Flavia was the sister of Flavius's paternal grandfather and Honoria. There is however nothing in the text to confirm this – Flavia, Honoria, and the elder Flavius could be cousins or in-laws; both Flavia or the Nicaean might be either a maternal or paternal grandparent.

Justin, Tiberius Lucius Justinianus, has a second praenomen (first name) instead of a family nomen, and his father and grandfather(s) are not named in the text, but Flavius recognises the family cognomen "Justinianus", commenting that their (paternal) lines have intermarried more than once (1). Honoria does not have the feminine form of the Flavius family name, but given the other Flavia and Sutcliff's erratic approach to Roman masculine names, this is probably not a clue to her intent.

Flavius's parents are said to have died of pestilence when he was a child, and he was raised by Honoria (and Volumnia) in Calleva. It seems likely that Justin's mother also died when he was a child, as she is not mentioned in the present, unlike his father, and he describes his nurse as the best part of his childhood.

The timeframe of The Silver Branch and the next dolphin ring story, Frontier Wolf, make it possible that Flavius, the ringbearer in Silver Branch, is the unnamed father of Alexios, the ringbearer in Frontier Wolf. The Silver Branch makes no mention, positive or negative, of siblings or cousins who could inherit the ring from Flavius, and he has no love interest in the story. The emperors Maximian and Constantius are the great-grandfather and grandfather of the emperor Constans, who appears in Frontier Wolf.

Historical and literary backgroundEdit

Paulinus is an amateur of the Greek tragedian Euripides, whose Hippolytus he lends to Justin in chapter 10.

Anthonius quotes John 15:13, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends", in chapter 12.

Compare chapter 7, in which Evicatos acts as Flavius and Justin's hunting guide to tell them of Allectus's plots with the Saxons, at an altar amidst the heather built by Sylvanus Varus, to Rudyard Kipling's "On the Great Wall" in Puck of Pook's Hill, in which Allo acts as Parnesius and Pertinax's hunting guide in the heather, they spy a Saxon fleet landing, Parnesius refers to an altar he once built to Sylvan Pan, and Pertinax builds another.

Compare chapter 18's

"What happens if we refuse? If we say that we served the Emperor Carausius with our whole hearts, and have not the same service to give again?"


"There was no disloyalty to Carausius in that, for they knew, both of them, that a man may give his service more than once without breaking faith, but only once for the first time."

to Kipling's

‘“In War it is as it is in Love,” said Pertinax. “Whether she be good or bad, one gives one’s best once, to one only. That given, there remains no second worth giving or taking.” ("The Winged Hats", Puck of Pook's Hill)

Publication historyEdit

  1. Oxford, 1957
  2. Oxford University Press, 2007